House-Senate animosity bubbles over with clashes on property taxes, education

House Speaker Dade Phelan, left, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Credit: The Texas Tribune

As legislative leaders quarrel over some of the session’s biggest issues, including property taxes, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has taken to flashing two wads of cash in a series of TV interviews: $1,060 in one hand and $800 in the other.

Those, he says, are the annual savings Texas homeowners could expect under the Texas Senate’s plan to control property tax growth. Importantly, he adds, only the Senate plan would provide those savings — the larger sum for homeowners age 65 and older, the smaller for all others.

“The House bill is just wrong on its math,” Patrick said during a recent TV interview. “The Senate bill — seniors, if you’re watching, our bill gives you $1,060 every year you homestead your home from 65 on.”

Feuding between the House and the Senate is nothing new, particularly as the legislative session enters the homestretch and the future of each chamber’s legislative priorities hangs in the balance.

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This session, however, the bad blood has started early with Patrick attacking House Speaker Dade Phelan by name, deriding the Beaumont Republican as “California Dade” and mocking the House’s property tax plan as “bad math” to put public pressure on the House to pass the Senate’s version of the bill.

During his prop-aided media blitz, Patrick also dropped the atom bomb of political threats, emphasizing that he can force a special legislative session if action stalls on some of his priority bills, including incentivizing the building of more natural gas plants and allowing the use of state dollars to send Texas kids to private schools.

“I can’t call a special session,” Patrick told Spectrum TV host Karina Kling in mid-April, noting that power rests solely with Gov Greg Abbott. “But I can create one by not passing a key bill that has to pass. That’s what I did in ‘17.”

That threat is the latest sign that, with a little more than a month before the legislative session ends on Memorial Day, tensions between the two legislative chambers are starting to build over major rifts in policymaking.

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Patrick, a staunch conservative, has touted the Senate’s passage of all 30 of his priority bills, saying they reflect the chamber’s “strongest, most conservative agenda ever.” That list includes bills limiting medical treatments for transgender kids; a push to end tenure as well as diversity, equity and inclusion practices in public universities; and a “school choice” push to allow parents to use state dollars to send their kids to private schools, which opponents say would harm the funding of the state’s public education system.

The House, Patrick complained, has not only been slow to act on Senate priorities, it’s been moving slowly on House bills as well. Unless the House picks up the pace in sending legislation to the upper chamber, some of those bills will die before they can be considered, he said.

“Sending that many bills that late means most will die due to the clock,” Patrick said on social media. “Not our fault. Help us help you.”

Phelan has taken a less confrontational approach, downplaying the interchamber rancor and highlighting legislation the House has already passed. In a statement on Tuesday, Phelan noted the House’s passage of a “fiscally conservative state budget that makes historic investments in everything ranging from our infrastructure to our higher education systems,” bills to increase child safety in schools and online, and “legislation to create the largest property tax cut in Texas history.”

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“Our work is not yet done,” Phelan said. “The Texas House will continue to pass legislation that keeps Texas the best place to live, work and raise a family, and we look forward to working with the Texas Senate to get our work done during the 88th regular session.”

Phelan has also tried to deflect Patrick’s attacks with humor, tweeting a shirtless picture of himself standing between two surfboards earlier Tuesday.

“Stoked for some tasty waves on the Texas Coast this summer after #txlege hits its gnarly Sine Die!” Phelan tweeted, riffing on the California Dade moniker while joking about his plans after the regular session’s final day.

There’s already talk of a special session

Phelan, a business-oriented Republican, has a list of priorities that range from extending Medicaid eligibility for low-income mothers to one year, to the formation of a new state border protection unit, to the creation of a new state tax-break program designed to entice big businesses to settle in Texas.

Phelan’s list is lighter on the hot button topics that dominate Patrick’s, and the House speaker’s refusal to embrace issues pushed by social conservatives has drawn sharp criticism from Texas GOP officials.

Matt Rinaldi, chair of the Republican Party of Texas, said he is concerned that some of the party’s biggest priorities have not been taken up by the House.

“The Senate has had an A-plus session. They’ve worked to pass Republican priorities and are responding to the needs of Republican members,” Rinaldi said. “I’d like to see the House pass the legislation that the Senate sent over to them.”

Rinaldi said he would support Gov. Greg Abbott calling a special session if bills to ban medical treatments for transgender kids do not pass because the House did not have time to consider them.

“I think the governor should make clear that if we don’t get important priority legislation like school choice and child gender modification bans passed that he’s going to call special sessions until it gets done,” Rinaldi said.

Patrick has forced a special session before. In 2017, he withheld a vote on must-pass legislation — a “sunset” bill that would have kept several state agencies from closing, including the Texas Medical Board — after the House declined to act on the so-called “bathroom bill,” which would have limited where transgender people could go to the bathroom, and the chambers hit a stalemate on efforts to cap the rate of property tax growth. Neither effort passed in the ensuing special session.

Then, as now, Patrick blasted the House’s leader, then-Speaker Joe Straus of San Antonio, for blocking special session votes on his preferred policies, including private school vouchers and defunding Planned Parenthood.

“Thank goodness Travis didn’t have the speaker at the Alamo,” Patrick said at the time. “He would’ve been the first one over the wall.”

The tense relationship between legislative leaders continued after Phelan took over the speaker’s gavel in 2021. During that session, Democrats walked out of the House in the final days of the legislative session to end debate on a controversial elections bill that GOP officials had prioritized. Patrick criticized Phelan for managing the chamber’s calendar poorly and “kowtowing with Democrats” to thwart conservative legislation. (The election bill ultimately passed, though it took two special sessions.)

Later that year, Patrick was behind an attack on Phelan by former President Donald Trump, a Patrick ally, that urged Phelan to pass an election audit bill in the House or face a primary challenger.

The relationship remains rancorous, with Patrick deriding Phelan as “California Dade” for pushing for a tighter appraisal cap, a proposal that mirrors a policy implemented by the California legislature and backed by that state’s voters in 1978, which Patrick said has not solved that state’s affordability problem. (Texas adopted a 10% annual appraisal cap on a home’s taxable value in 1997.)

“California Dade wants a California tax plan,” Patrick said in a recent interview.

Phelan’s and Patrick’s priorities share some things in common. Both have bills to rein in district attorneys and local judges who the Republican majorities say are neglecting their duty by not enforcing certain crimes or being lax on bail rules. And both chambers have bills aimed at banning what they deem sexually explicit books in school libraries, as well as bills to increase school safety after the Uvalde school shooting last May that left 19 children and two teachers dead.

But the chambers are far apart on two of the session’s biggest issues: the use of public dollars to fund some children’s private education and how to rein in rising property taxes.

Different paths on “school choice”

Abbott made the use of “education savings accounts” to pay for private schools a legislative priority and has extensively campaigned around the state to rally support. Patrick, who’s long supported “school choice,” also made the issue one of his top items. But House lawmakers, particularly rural lawmakers who fear the loss of jobs in school districts that are frequently the largest employers in those areas, have been lukewarm on the idea. They also fear the long-term impact that draining funds from the state’s public education system could have on their schools, which are frequently the only educational options in their district.

The Senate passed a bill in early April to allow parents to use education savings accounts to pull their kids out of public schools and use that money toward tuition at a private school.

That same day, the House approved an amendment to the state budget banning the use of “school vouchers or other similar programs.” The budget bill will be changed before the legislative session ends to iron out the differences between the two chambers, and supporters of the educational savings account approach note that the House’s 86-52 vote was much closer than in previous years, giving them hope that the House language could be removed.

Renée Cross, senior director of the Hobby School of Public Affairs in Houston, said the “school choice” battle could come down to Abbott putting his thumb on the scale. While rural Republicans in the House are hesitant to support his education savings account plan, Abbott has worked against lawmakers who didn’t support his policies in past primary elections.

“It’ll put that much more pressure on Speaker Phelan and those rural Republicans,” Cross said. “If I had to pick one [issue] that will get really bloody, that would probably be the one.”

Heartburn over property tax cuts

The two chambers are also at odds over property taxes.

The Senate wants to boost the state’s homestead exemption on school district taxes – or the amount of a home’s value that can’t be taxed by school districts — from $40,000 to $70,000, with homeowners 65 years and older getting an additional $20,000 exemption.

But the House’s plan deals with lowering school district taxes, a major contributor to high property tax bills, by 28% while at the same time limiting appraisal growth to 5% per year. House leaders say their plan would save the average homeowner $542 next year and $733 in 2025, while also helping businesses by including them in the new appraisal cap.

When the House passed its version of property tax savings, Phelan told the legislation’s author, Rep. Morgan Meyer, R-Highland Park, the move should “send a message.”

Patrick has blasted House estimates on tax savings — and argued that lowering the appraisal limit would have no real impact on property taxes. Casting doubt on a possible compromise, he added that he cannot negotiate with the House’s “bad math.”

“Hell will freeze over before I do that,” he told WFAA’s Jason Whitely.

Taking an intractable stance on a key issue makes a special session a very real prospect, Cross said. Abbott has promised to use the state’s historic budget surplus to pull off the biggest tax cut in Texas history, but he has not publicly supported one chamber’s plan over the other.

With only slightly more than one month left in the session, Cross said the two sides may have to negotiate which bills are most important to pass before Memorial Day, trading one side’s priorities for guaranteed passage of the other’s.

“It’s going to go on until the very end,” Cross said. “I don’t see we’re going to get online tomorrow and see that some of these things will be resolved.”

But Rinaldi said that with both chambers dominated by Republicans, there should be no need for negotiating on priorities.

“I don’t see why there needs to be horse trading between two Republican-controlled bodies,” he said. “I don’t see why there should be competing interests.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.